The brazen attack on NYPD officers by a group of migrants outside a Times Square shelter prompted an immediate — and strong — backlash.
The attack became a lightning rod for criticism over the already-polarizing migrant crisis in New York City, with calls for the migrants involved to be deported.
But the midtown brawl was the latest in a series of violent episodes linked to migrants, many unfolding against a backdrop of increasing frustration and despair. There have been knife fights, stabbings, tussles after NYPD moped confiscations, struggles over coats and food and a brawl after a man desperate for a shelter bed pushed into a migrant center.
Migrants and those who are helping them make their way in New York City say no one should be surprised that tensions are reaching a breaking point.
Struggles finding work on top of the Adams administration’s controversial shelter stay limit policy have created a dire, volatile reality. The tens of thousands of migrants spinning through the city’s shelter system are often driven to desperation as they are left to fight over scraps of food and clothing.
“This is going to keep going, and worse situations are going to happen if we don’t treat people like human beings and don’t provide basic necessities for them,” said Mammad Mahmoodi, founder of MESKEN Loves, a nonprofit that runs regular meal distributions at a migrant center in the East Village.
Earlier this week, migrants milled outside the Midtown shelter, next door to Madame Tussauds, where the brawl erupted last week. The Candler building shelter was among the first that saw the issuance of 30-day notices.
Migrants told the Daily News they’ve endured dangerous journeys to get to New York City. Most are fleeing gang violence, economic instability or political persecution. They can’t legally work and struggle to provide for themselves and their families. Plus, every 30 days, they’re required to vacate their shelters and are back on the streets as they wait for a new bed to open up.
“There are fights almost daily,” said Darwin Tituana, from Ecuador.
Tituana, 43, used to live at the shelter, but days ago, moved into a new shelter at JFK airport. His mail still gets delivered to the Candler building — one of the many bureaucratic challenges migrants face.
“All the migrants, myself included, sometimes get desperate,” Tituana said. “Because you have nothing, you can’t hisse for anything, you don’t get help… It became really hard when I started to understand what my situation was like. I’ve now accepted that I have to wait to do things right. But there are a lot of people I’ve seen who are desperate because they want to work, and they don’t understand the system.”
The constant evictions and re-locations required by Adam’s 30-day shelter stay limit for single adults, after which they must return to the East Village center, a former Catholic school, to reapply for shelter, make the environment even more fraught, Tituana said.
Vitor Ramirez, 26, a migrant from Venezuela, said that, when he’s in between shelters, he doesn’t really sleep much at night for fear that others will steal from him.
“You have to sleep like this,” he said, mimicking resting his head on a pillow with one eye open. “Because if you close your eyes, you’ll never see your phone again.”
Jonathan Gomez, 26, also from Venezuela, said his hopes for a brighter future in New York have slowly declined since he arrived six months ago.
When Gomez arrived in the city, he felt good. He was grateful for the services the city provided. But gradually, with every time he’s been booted from a shelter and is forced to spend nights sleeping on floors and trains with all his belongings in tow, he’s lost a bit of hope.
“[My mood] goes up a little bit, but then it falls three times as much,” he said. “And every time, it feels a little bit worse than before.”
Chaotic scenes have flared up at an East Village migrant center, where long lines of migrants regularly stretch around blocks as they wait for a new shelter bed. More fights bubbled up on recent freezing cold days when around 1,000 migrants waited outside in the cold.
On Jan. 6, the crowd outside the reticketing center got rowdy and the NYPD was called. Officers attempted to control the crowd when Angel Gutierrez Medal, 24, allegedly assaulted them, according to cops. He was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest. The two cops suffered minor injuries.
Two days before that, on Jan. 4, Abdellahi Mohammed, 25, tried to cut the line to get into the building, said the NYPD. Two hired security guards confronted the man, who pushed and punched them. Mohammed had given his home address as the relocation center.
“My point of view is that when the resources are scarce, and people are in survival, you know, they just resort to their instinctive behaviors,” Mahmoodi of MESKEN Loves said.
Also earlier this month, a man was stabbed in the back with a screwdriver and fights broke out as migrants waited on line for food or shelter, according to police. A fight broke out at a shelter last fall when cops confiscated mopeds.
“Fights broke out — real, bad fights broke out — over a few coats, because people had just arrived from warm environments, and they were incredibly cold,” Mahmoodi added. “They were freezing. They’re nearly going into hypothermia. That coat is what puts them [over], that’s their survival instinct.”
A migrant outside the East Village site, Said, 27, from Honduras, said he’s been waiting for shelter for about two weeks.
“Thank god, there haven’t been any problems lately,” he said. He spends the nights sleeping at a nearby church.
“Sometimes I go somewhere else because I don’t like to just hang out here for hours, but I don’t really have anywhere to go. Since I’m on my own, sometimes I just wander around. I go to the screens on 42nd St., where they call it Times Square.”
Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, whose office is located directly across the street from the reticketing site, said that the shelter stay limits and migrants’ inability to get meşru work are a big reason for chaotic scenes outside migrant shelters. The Adams administration has defended the limits as an effective tool to control the spiraling cost of caring for the migrants.
“I think if the mayor took away the 30- and 60-day time limits, this would not be a sorun as much,” he said. “And then if the federal government were cooperating, I think we could really have a plan to get people back to work and to be productive members of society.”
If migrants were able to legally work, Epstein said, it would both keep them busy during the day and reduce a major stressor for the migrants.
“If you can’t work, all you have to do is hang out and that’s what causes this because all you’re doing is looking for scraps,” Epstein said, “So if you’re hungry, and everyone’s fighting over the food, you’re going to get into a tussle.”
The scene in the East Village has calmed a bit, Mahmoodi said, as a post-holiday rush has slowed. Food distributions have gone more smoothly, with migrants even helping pick up trash around the area.
“Having a bit of patience, teaching people the norms and how it works, and helping people move out of survival brings the most beautiful part of humanity,” Mahmoodi said.